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These days, you don’t have to look far to find an organisation talking about how they’re doing their bit in the battle against climate change, and how for many, their bit involves carbon offsetting. It’s a term we hear banded about a lot – from airlines and oil companies to fashion retailers and food manufacturers – but what does it mean, and does it really work?

What is Carbon Offsetting?

In simple terms, offsetting is a way of compensating for your own carbon emissions by paying someone else to remove or absorb the CO2 for you. So, a company that produces a given amount of carbon each year, would calculate and plant the number of trees needed to suck that amount of carbon out of the atmosphere. This then leaves the business to continue their day-to-day operations guilt free, knowing their emissions have been accounted for. Sounds great, right? But, if the climate crisis were that simple to solve, we wouldn’t have a crisis in the first place.

What are the arguments?

The carbon offsetting industry is worth more than US$1 billion globally, a figure set to increase significantly throughout the course of the decade. Many organisations utilise such schemes in their race to net-zero, identifying them as effective ways to demonstrate genuine commitment to achieving the UN’s goal of net-zero by 2050. It’s also argued that offsetting provides a structure for businesses to track their own carbon footprints while supporting environmentally beneficial projects.

Others contend that offsetting initiatives are simply a distraction from the real solutions, and genuine change that is needed to reduce carbon emissions entering the atmosphere in the first place. It allows companies to don a “carbon neutral” badge, all the while they can continue their harmful, unsustainable practices, pumping the same amount – or more – of carbon into the atmosphere, dangerously misleading customers in the process.

So, how does it work?

Carbon offsets seek to reduce future emissions either through the capture of carbon from our atmosphere, or through the replacement of fossil fuels with renewable alternatives.

The most common offsetting approach businesses use, is tree planting. It’s a known fact that forests are one of the best tools we have in our arsenal for their natural ability to remove carbon from the atmosphere, and as such companies invest in tree planting schemes to balance their emission production. However, it’s not the failsafe plan many rely on it to be for several reasons:

  • A tree planted today to offset a flight taken, for example could take up to 20 years to capture the amount of carbon needed
  • If we want these trees to live long enough to capture all the carbon offsetting schemes promise, we must then ensure we protect them, so they live long enough to do so. This includes ensuring sufficient protection from deforestation, disease, old age, as well as the increasing occurrence of natural events such droughts and wildfires
  • When trees die prematurely in this way they become a source of emissions, rather than having the opposite intended effect, as the carbon they’ve previously trapped in their trunks and branches, makes its way back into the atmosphere
  • Several studies have been published looking into the ethical considerations of offsetting schemes, with many instances of harm highlighted. From communities being deprived of vital resources, increased pollution levels in waterways, and access to sacred sites being blocked because of poorly managed tree planting initiatives

What’s the alternative?

At Outlook, we’ve grappled with the idea of offsetting for quite some time, but each time we come back to the same conclusion – that you can’t pay for your sins, while still causing harm. The idea that we could push the responsibility for our emissions onto someone else, to make grand claims of carbon neutrality, or positivity, just doesn’t sit well with us. For us, transparency and integrity must come above all else.

We couldn’t agree more with the argument that protecting and bolstering our trees and ecosystems is not only essential for the climate but wildlife and biodiversity too. But what we don’t agree with is that planting trees can be used as a substitute for directly reducing carbon emissions – knowing that carbon stored in trees is still not the same as fossil fuels left underground and not making its way into our atmosphere in the first place.

So, while our approach to carbon management may not include formally offsetting our emissions, it does include a commitment to fund and support a holistic, sustainable approach to reforestation, rewilding, and regeneration.

This means seeking out initiatives that benefit not only our natural environment and have the potential to absorb high levels of carbon, but also support communities through the creation of sustainable livelihoods, and environmental education and awareness. We’ll avoid the quick, cheap route of planting as many trees as we can – only for them to be poorly planned, managed, and maintained. Instead, we’ll hand pick partners based not only on their environmental credentials, but those that have a wider understanding of the issues that matter to us – many of which derive from the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.

The future of offsetting

As knowledge and understanding of climate issues and the tactics to mitigate them become more widespread, so does the controversy around carbon offsetting – including around the legitimacy of the organisations providing offsets, and the accuracy of the measurements they provide. As a result, more and more businesses are taking steps to distance themselves from these schemes. What’s more, as the market continues to grow in value, smaller companies are increasingly finding themselves priced out of offsetting initiatives, forcing them to consider more direct, meaningful reduction tactics as a result.

What may have started as a genuine solution to a problem – and for some, continues to be used in addition to other carbon reduction activities, rather than as the sole solution – has increasingly become a clever PR tool, allowing companies to swerve responsibility and the need to take genuine action.

The stark reality is that there is no quick win in the battle against climate change, and as a global community we must reshape the way we think and operate – both at a business level and as individuals. We must educate ourselves and others to take responsibility for our actions and the impact they might have on the lives of others and our planet.

We know we’re not perfect, we know we don’t have all the answers, but this is a journey we’re passionate about getting right. We can only plan for real, genuine change by listening to others in the field, sharing ideas, and learning. If you have any feedback, suggestions, or insights, we’d love to hear from you. Similarly, if you run or know of a co-beneficial environmental project that we should consider for support, please let us know – we’d love to chat. Simply email

Written by
Outlook Expeditions